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Rabbitbrush Rambler: Uncle Lafe, Part IV

Posted: Tuesday, Feb 5th, 2013

Lafayette Head was hardly idle after the Conejos Indian Agency closed. His business interests continued, he was able to devote more time to political activities, social activities became more important as the years passed, and his home life must have been receiving some attention, too.

He expanded his roller mill that served a wide clientele, especially the new mining camps and the territory’s growing cities in the 1870s. He had large numbers of sheep and cattle grazing on land up the La Jara River and at Head Lake, in the care of about 20 Indian workers whom Head said he had adopted.

Always a Republican, Head renewed his interest in politics. He won a seat in Colorado’s territorial council (senate) in 1873, and his next step was election in 1875 to the convention that was framing a state constitution, a task in which he gave special attention to water and mining. Besides his interest in the perennial issue of water rights, mining was occurring in the nearby area up the Alamosa River and at Summitville.

Next, he went to the state Republican convention at Pueblo and won nomination for lieutenant governor. (With a population of nearly 6,000 in southern Colorado then, his region had some influence.) John L. Routt, a miner who had been territorial governor appointed by Grant, got the Republican nomination for governor, and this pair won a two-year term in the State of Colorado’s first election.

Head was a delegate to the Republicans’ national convention in Chicago in 1880 and backed Grant for the nomination again but lost. In these activities, Head enjoyed using the honorific title of “Major” with his name, although evidence of this rank is nonexistent in his military records.

Traveling by train made social life easier. He affiliated with the Masonic Lodge at Alamosa in 1881, as he had done 30 years earlier in Santa Fe, and he also joined the Knights Templars, probably in Denver or possibly in Pueblo. Visitors to ASU’s Luther Bean Museum can see his Templars’ sword and a photograph, made in 1890, of a white-bearded Lafayette Head in his Templars’ uniform, and Piedad Head Hill Nelson and Piedad’s son George Hill, who appears to be about 10 years old in the photo.

At some point, collaborating with Celedonio Valdez, a descendant of original petitioners for the grants in 1833 and 1842, Head attempted to shut out independent newcomers and to obtain land ownership on the old Guadalupe Grant, a move that must have caused local animosity. General William Palmer, president of the Denver and Rio Grande Railway, once had a similar, failed scheme for the grant’s land.

Bringing high excitment, the D&RG steamed into Alamosa in 1878 and headed in 1880 to access Durango and Espanola. The economic boom in the San Juans to the west and at Leadville to the north brought to the grant’s settlers, and to Mormons and other farmers and ranchers moved in northern Conejos County.

Unfortunately for Uncle Lafe’s dusty little plaza, the D&RG routed its tracks to Antonito instead of Conejos, but Conejos was not down and out yet. Our Lady of Guadalupe’s church saw improvements and enlargement in 1879, with Head giving twice as much money as any other individual donor, and a splendid stone courthouse was built in 1891, thanks to population growth. (Until 1913, Alamosa was still in Conejos County.)

On the family scene, ambiguity exists. Lafayette Head was childless when he married Maria “Martina” Martinez in 1851, but, reportedly, she had a child, José Sisneros, from a previous marriage. In 1851, little three-year-old Maria Piedad Sisneros, a child of José, was adopted by “Martina” and Lafayette, if the story is correct.

Piedad received some schooling from the Sisters of Loretto, who came to Conejos in 1865. After her grandmother Martina’s death in 1886, Piedad was described by historian Frank Hall as presiding at the “luxuriantly appointed” Fort Head “with exalted grace.”

In the late 1870s or so, Piedad is said to have married a doctor from England by whom she had a son, George Hill. Next, she married Alfred Nelson, listed in the 1880 U.S. Census as a resident of Conejos.

He had come to the West for unknown reasons, perhaps health-related, and his father, John Nelson, a prosperous owner of a textile mill in Rockford, Illinois, opposed this marriage. His horrified family said she was an “Indian.” Alfred died at Conejos in 1888 at age 33.

Following his death, Piedad Nelson was involved in litigation regarding a patent, which she relinquished ultimately, for improvements on a knitting machine which Alfred had designed. We must assume that Uncle Lafe was aware of these events.

Uncle Lafe suddenly died as a result of a heart attack on March 8, 1897, at Denver’s downtown Albany Hotel, where businessmen and their families often stayed when in the city. Earlier that evening, he had visited Piedad in her current home in Denver. He was buried in the cemetery at Conejos.

Lafayette Head should be remembered as a leader in the San Luis Valley, even if his achievements were begrudged by some of his neighbors. During the transformation from frontier days to modern statehood, from the Mexican-American War to modern Colorado, he was a catalyst, whether as a trader, settler, husband, rancher, miller, slave owner, Indian agent, politician, or lodge man.

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